Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: English Passengers

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is the book I always mention when someone asks me for a recommendation.  It's a many-layered story that manages to be hilarious and tragic at the same time.

It's 1857 and Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is convinced that the original site of the Garden of Eden was Tasmania.  He organizes a pilgrimage and charters a ship, which the good reverend is unaware is run by a group of smugglers from the Isle of Man.  The first part of the novel is told from the point of view of the ship's captain, Illiam Quillian Kewley, and taught me everything I know about Manx culture, which is admittedly still very little.

Reverend Wilson gathers a group of people to travel with him to Tasmania, one of whom has unorthodox opinions about race, viewing people of Saxon descent as superior to all others.  He looks down on Normans and despises the Celts, and his views become less and less enlightened, the further south a group originates from and the browner their skin.  Also in the group is an unpromising youth, who's forced to join by his father as a way of curing him of being flippant and drinking too much.  The journey gets underway, with a detour off the coast of England to steal someone's silver. Later, there's a wine smuggling caper in Capetown.

This is all very funny, but then the perspective shifts to Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine in the 1830s, as well as prisoners in the Tasmanian penal colony and the governors of the colony. Tasmanian Aborigines were hunted like animals, raped and abused, and eventually herded into a supervised colony where every single one of them died.  Peevay's story moves forward in history, while the expedition approaches Tasmania, for their inevitable collision.  It's been years since I read this and I don't remember exactly what happens, but I do know that there's a dramatic conclusion and that the unpromising, dissipated youth, turns out to be the hero, while the racist Saxon enthusiast is one of a host of villains. 


  1. How do you find these books that I never, ever hear of? And again I add to my list....

  2. LOL! I think I found this book via Nancy Pearl's Book Lust. It's where a LOT of what I've read comes from.